U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is coming to town this week to address the raging opioid crisis in our country.
It’s critical that the federal government engages on this issue. I’m glad he’s paying attention and trying to help. But so far this administration’s attitude toward the opioid crisis shows a complete misunderstanding of the problem, one that I believe will end up making it worse, not better.
Sessions and other administration officials seem to have a one-pronged strategy to fight drugs: Kill drug dealers and lock up as many people involved with drugs as possible.
We can and should stop the supply of illegal, life-threatening drugs at every turn, but the way to threaten drug dealers is to put them out of business, not to say we’re going to kill them. As long as there are users, there will be dealers. Instead of these impossible and unenforceable threats, we need to cut off demand.
On the Maine Turnpike, our hardworking enforcement teams are intercepting drugs at a significant rate, but that’s just a data point. It only means more are getting by. The business of supplying drugs is clearly immensely profitable. Although it may sound like a simple, appealing solution, there is no reason to believe the threat of a death penalty or increased prison sentences would cause someone in that business to opt to close up shop. For someone dealing with the disease of substance use disorder, that threat is just not real. For someone making millions dealing drugs, it’s not a deterrent.
As long as there are buyers, there will be sellers, and there are simply not enough resources to stop the sellers from being successful. The administration’s strategy isn’t up to the task – it’s like asking a toddler to lift up a Chevy.
We are facing the deadliest drug crisis in American history. Overdoses – two-thirds of them involving opioids – are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 years old, killing roughly 64,000 people last year – more than car accidents – and at a faster velocity than the HIV epidemic.
Here in Maine, the extent of the opioid crisis is astounding. Opioid addiction affects people of all ages and socioeconomic groups, from rural areas to cities and everywhere in between. Our resources are strained by overwhelmed emergency rooms and first responders, crowded morgues and jam-packed jail cells. Babies under age 1, sometimes dependent at birth, comprise over 20 percent of children entering foster care – as parents either die or have their children taken away.
There are only about 30 babies born in Maine each day and three of them are born drug-dependent.
The stereotype of a user under a bridge or in a squalid apartment isn’t accurate. In fact, the majority of people who use drugs are educated, and the average age is almost 40. Maine Behavioral Health estimates that there are 35,000 people in Maine struggling with substance use disorder currently, and 26,000 of them are working.
It is a public health crisis, like heart disease or high blood pressure, and the annual economic cost to taxpayers nationwide is estimated to be $442 billion.
These facts make it clear: We need a comprehensive, all-out assault on the drug crisis, with expanded access to health care, specialized court dockets that refer those with substance use disorder to treatment, support for law enforcement diversion programs and support for intensive medication-assisted treatment in our jails. The narrow, unenforceable, ineffective strategy that Attorney General Sessions and other Trump administration officials may sound good, but it won’t get results.